COVID Cautionary Tale #1: The Electric Bike Facebook Scam

Nobody likes to play the part of a fool, especially when lured hook line and sinker by a fraudulent Facebook ad that any reasonably smart person could see was too good to be true.

I blame Facebook for allowing the problem ad on its site in the first place, as well as all kinds of other dubious ads that I’ve fallen for, like the snazzy yellow shoes I bought last year that came from China in a plastic bag, and were literally made of cardboard with fuzzy faux suede sprayed on, and the baby-crib hammock I ordered for my nephew and his wife’s new baby, which looked like a Dollar Tree shop towel.

As an aside, you know what I’ve noticed? Sometimes the more polished and enticing the Facebook ads, the bigger the ripoff they are. They invest a little on the front end to create impressive ads, and then end up selling supremely shitty merchandise, or not following through with delivery at all.

But I digress.

I also blame Facebook for being in cahoots with Google that then pimped out my search information to Facebook regarding my recent research about electric bikes.

Granted, I’d never been interested in an e-bike before, but then the world fell apart in March, and I was all cooped up. Suddenly, an electric bike seemed like exactly what I needed, when I wasn’t making sourdough starter, sourdough bread, and using gallons of the vodka I didn’t drink to make homemade grapefruit liqueur and vanilla.

I live in west Redding, which is pretty hilly, and my bike-riding fantasy entailed me breezing along on my enviable motorized bicycle with the cute basket on the front filled with flowers, wine and the requisite French baguette, as the the wind blew the hair beneath my beret. My fantasy did not entail me huffing and puffing, sweating and swearing as I trudged up Shasta Street pushing a fat-tired beach cruiser.

During this pandemic lock down, I’ve read a lot about electric bikes. I’ve learned there’s no shame in riding an e-bike, because despite what some people may think, electric bikes are not a lazy way to ride. On the contrary.  Studies show that people get more exercise and ride bikes more often when they have the pedal-assist electric bikes, because they’re not afraid of encountering hills, so they’re inclined to use their bikes and get out more. Made sense to me.

The bike I had my eye on was the RadWagon 4, in orange, which is technically a cargo . I planned to get a little accessory seat with side handles so my grandkids could ride on the back, if their parents allowed it, and I don’t know why they wouldn’t since I have sound judgement. Besides, I raised three kids, so I know a bit about children and bicycles.

I’ve read many reviews about the RadWagon Electric Cargo Bike (overwhelmingly positive) and watched some inspiring videos.

The bike is being sold online only with free shipping, all for $1,499, which was $100 off if I pre-ordered it, though it wouldn’t be delivered until August or September. I was cool with that, because my bike would arrive after the worst of Redding’s heat was behind us, just in time for lovely fall bike rides around my neighborhood. Colorful leaves would be falling, the air would be turning crisp, and surely by then we’d awaken from this nightmare that is the COIVD-19 crisis and return to our normal, wonderfully boring lives again.

Here’s how the RadWagon 4 Cargo Bike was described: This is a next-level hauler designed for those who are loading up to go somewhere, whether that’s taking the kids on a trip across town or a weekend visit to the hardware store or farmer’s market. With a standover height 2.4 inches lower than its predecessor and a 750W geared hub motor, the RadWagon 4 is in it for the long haul.

OK, never mind that I’ve never ridden a bike across town in my life, let alone for a trip to the farmers market or hardware store, but somehow, because the world is so insane right now, the improbable is possible.

I planned to invest my stimulus check (thank you, coronavirus) in my RadWagon purchase, but that didn’t happen because I had to get all practically grown-up and spend that money and more on a big-ass fence on three sides of my property, which is another story in itself.

Anyway, I abandoned the idea of my RadWagon, until June 29, when a slick ad popped up on Facebook one night that drew me in. Normally, I’m pretty skeptical and wary and careful. I blame my lapse in judgement on the coronavirus, since it’s got me all discombobulated.

I was transfixed by this well-designed ad that included a video that offered this electric bike for just $89.99. What? Electric bikes can easily run into the thousands of dollars. I couldn’t believe it. Except I did. Why? Because I wanted to, just like I want COVID-19 to crawl into whatever nasty hole it emerged, curl up and die.

That $89.99 Facebook ad seems to have disappeared, but on the evening of June 29 there were hundreds of comments from incredulous people like me asking things like, “Why is this bike so inexpensive?” to which the e-bike folks responded quickly and professionally to every single question, sometimes patiently repeating answers. They explained that the electric bike was a limited-time introductory offer for this particular new brand. Plus, shipping was free! Wow. Who’s the lucky girl? As I read all the comments I got caught up in the frenzy of excited people saying, “I just ordered my bike! I’m getting the red one!”

I wanted a red one. What if in a flurry of e-bike bargain shopping others snapped up all the bikes, especially the red ones?

People discussed which wattage package would be the best bet, and gosh, for just $30 more we could order a bike with a bit more wattage, so I’d really cruise up those hills. Heck, I could ride to Whiskeytown and back!

I now know how Adam and Eve felt in the Garden of Eden. If this bike had been there instead of that tree, they would have dropped the apple, clicked on the link, ordered the bike and zoomed off into the sunset together.

I gave in to temptation and clicked on the link. Two choices: Credit/debit or PayPal? I chose debit. Oh yes I did. I selected the red bike, relieved there were still some in stock, and spared no expense by kicking in an extra $30 for that added wattage oomph. I read every single thing on the home page about the company, Dealex, which included information about their company headquarters, at Moonlight State Beach, of all places. How quaint is that?

I was giddy with excitement, and immediately sent the link to my sister and a friend, because I’m a sharing kind of gal. I pictured the three of us riding our e-bikes together all over the Sacramento River Trail. Bizarrely, they both passed on the incredible offer. Whatever. Their loss. I couldn’t wait to see the looks on their faces when I rode the miles to their houses on my shiny new Monday Red (that’s the official color name) bike. They’d be so jealous.

Speaking of red, the first red flag arrived via a confirmation email in a mix of English and Chinese writing with huge text that said, “Thanks for using PayPal, Doni Chamberlain.”

PayPal? I didn’t use PayPal. I’d used my debit card for this Dealex e-bike purchase. I immediately replied to the confirmation email and pointed out their error. Nine long days later I finally received a reply from an e-mailer whose address included the name baby cola. Even more irritating than the fact that the email was pure nonsense, was that baby cola had ignored my original PayPal question.

Dear Doni Chamberlain, I am very happy to receive your email. Because the product is too large to be transported by ordinary logistics, it needs to be delivered by our staff in person, so there is no specific logistics number. The customer service staff inquires according to the background information. Your product has been on July 7, 2020. Issued on the day, please keep the call smooth, sorry for the inconvenience. happy shopping.

Keep the call smooth? Happy shopping? What the hell? I replied and said I couldn’t decipher what the email was trying to say.

Baby cola replied, but this time completely omitted my name:

Dear

Because the logistics fees charged by UPS are extremely high, if you choose UPS, the logistics fees need to be borne by the customers. As long as your address information is correct, the staff will contact you before dispatching. I am very sorry for the inconvenience. Questions, welcome to consult. have a good time.

I wrote back and argued. I reminded baby cola that their ad guaranteed free shipping, so what was this talk about logistics fees and UPS?

While I waited for baby cola’s response, I looked more closely at my invoice and the baby cola correspondence.

Below the photo of my new bike were other Dealex offers, like an air fryer, and a “multi-functional” leather bed for $139, with just $10 shipping fee.

Uh oh.

All this for $139, just $10 covers shipping.

I Googled “electric bike scams” and found it’s a very real thing, that these bogus companies copy and paste graphics from real bike companies’ websites and then pass them off as theirs. The prices are so obscenely low that gullible people (and people whose brains are addled by the pandemic) take the bait. The companies are often overseas. They take the money, and of course, no surprise, there are no bikes. This happens with all kinds of products, from sheds and toys to cars, clothes  and electric scooters. Buyer beware, especially online.

I sent an email to the address on the Dealex page, and it came back undeliverable. I called the number on the invoice and the number was disconnected.

I emailed baby cola and said I believed the company was a scam, and I wanted an immediate refund.

This time, baby cola’s name was now cola baby. My name was bold, as if it had been inserted into a template:

Dear Doni Chamberlain
Sorry for the inconvenience caused to you. The product is already in transit. It is expected to be delivered on July 21. Customer service cannot be cancelled. If you receive any dissatisfaction with the product, you can refund it in full and do not have to bear the freight. Have a good time

I called my bank and sheepishly explained what happened. The bank representative was kind and understanding, and did not (openly) mock me for falling prey to what was looking like a scam offer of an electric bike that was obviously too low a price to be true. For good measure, she cancelled my debit card.

I looked on the bank statement and sure enough, there was the $119.99 paid on June 30 to *HU PAYPAL* with a bunch of letters after it. Right below that was a phone number. Bingo. I called it and got a recording that sounded legit enough that identified the company as PayPal, and a recording that requested the last four digits of my Social Security number, which I didn’t give.

I hung up and called the real PayPal (provided by my bank) and explained the *HU PayPal* weirdness and shared the number I’d just called. The real PayPal representative said that that number was absolutely not the real PayPal’s. The PayPal security person said they’d pass the information onto their fraud unit, because something was definitely fishy.

I reported everything to my bank’s fraud unit, which they said they’d investigate. When I asked about recovering my $119.99, I was told that the bank policy is to wait 30 days to see if the merchandise actually arrives. If it doesn’t arrive within 30 days, then I could take up the dispute with my bank. Even if I never see the money again, it could have been much worse if my PayPal account had been hacked.

I’m no fraud investigator, but my hunch is that the bike scam was a small-potatoes scheme that bilked consumers who should know better out of 100 bucks or so for bikes that never arrive, which results in people contacting the bogus PayPal number. It would make sense that the more serious and even more damaging scheme would be to impersonate PayPal, collect all the security information when the disgruntled bike-buyers call to complain – which surely they (we) will – and then easily hack the bike-buyers’ PayPal accounts and drain the money, or commit identity theft and gobble up other accounts. That’s where the big bucks would be. But that’s just my guess. I’ll let the professional fraud folks do their jobs.

Although I’m telling you all this as a cautionary tale so you don’t repeat my stupid mistake, I confess I’m so embarrassed that I haven’t even admitted what happened to my kids. I’m at that magic age when roles inexplicably flip and grown kids suddenly think they know best, checking parents’ refrigerators for expired cottage cheese and questioning their folks’ driving skills, the same adults who taught those kids to drive.

If my kids knew about this, I’d never hear the end of it.

Most of all, if by some miracle this isn’t a scam, and my $119.99 electric bike actually does arrive, my grandchildren’s parents will think twice before letting their kids ride on the back of Noni’s new red e-bike.

Meanwhile, while I wait to see if that bike ever does arrive by July 21, I think I’ll check out that multi-functional sofa bed. And just $10 for shipping.

What a deal.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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